I’ve been to Soweto before, but not as a Japanese tourist.
A lunch with a friend and make sure you leave before sundown and keep your finger on speed dial to ADT, type of thing. I know we always laugh at Japanese tourists who take photos of everything, but think of it this way: ‘Japanese Tourists’ are seeing something fascinating in your country that you might have come to take for granted. Everything is fresh and new. You can do touristy things without feeling you are not ‘cool’, ‘dope’ or ‘woke’. Just do it. Whoever laughs at you for looking foolish, too bad for them that they have not yet learned that making a doos of yourself is one of the most liberating tricks you can learn as a human.
Also, as a Japanese Tourist, it gives you a sense of distance and perspective. A way of thinking deeply, without getting attached – this is probably the biggest benefit of being a Japanese Tourist.
Thus, I packed my bag into Katy Peri-Peri’s boot, booked my bed at the BackPackers and went to Soweto as a Japanese Tourist from Germiston.
I pull into the Authentic African Backpackers in Mbele Street. The owner, Lungile, comes out to meet me personally. It was love at first sight. He took one look and it was clear he was considering an intimate and long-term relationship with Katy Peri-Peri. Lungile is a Sowetan, an entrepreneur and a hustler. They are all sort of the same.
“Ah, Impala 6Mabone. 6 Lights at the back. Sophiatown” he sighs. “This car reminds me of the times of Sophiatown. My father was a jazz musician, part of the ‘Elite Swingsters’. I remember us driving cars likes this; Pontiac, Biscayne, Plymouth. It was a time of style. That is what life is about – style.”
Lungile fetched his Fedora hat and took us for a drive. Wherever we went, people stopped, stared and shouted. ‘Sis Katy was a hit. Even small children, who had no frame of reference for this type of car, stared mouths ajar.
Lungile was in his element. He spotted two friends on the side of the road. We offered them a lift.
“Hayi, Mfowethu! Vrrr Pha!” says the one.
(Hau, my brother, Vrrr Pha!)
“Vrrrr PHA!” Lunigle replied, putting extra emphasis on the ‘Pha!’
“Vrrr Pha” is a colloquialism referring to the sound sports cars make when they change gears. It can also be used as an exclamation or accentuation of things you want to brag about or attract attention to, especially cars.
However you view it, Katy Peri-Peri was Vrrr Pha!!! royalty in Soweto.
“This is classic! This is style!” muses the other friend. They all cheer and whoop. I laugh that something as simple as a car could bring so much joy.
We drop the friends off at the station.
“You know, these cars were the taxis of back then. We called them ’10-seaters. 6 People in the back, the driver and 3 passengers in front.
“Nobody is making a 10-Seater out of Katy Peri-Peri,” I say loud enough to drown out the ‘Ka-Chieng, Ka-Chieng” sounds echoing in Lungile’s head.
We drive through Orlando. Part of Lungile’s service at his Backpackers is to offer bicycle tours and Tuk-Tuk tours. But he had a grander idea now.
“Do you know how much money we can make doing tours in this car! Hai, hai, hai! Vrrr Pha! Put some Dolly Rathebe, Miriam Makheba or Duke Ellington and the Elite Swingsters on the sound system and conduct a nostalgic tour. This car attracts attention. The rappers and musicians will go mad for it. We can make a killing.”
I smile and allow him to have his foolish dreams, but somewhere, a cog starts turning. The Japanese Monopoly Capitalist kicks in.
“Your driveway is too small” Where will she sleep? How much can we charge?”
“We are a community here. The neighbours will have space. We can charge premium moolah.”
“There is cash in Soweto if you know where to look.” He says.
Lungile is right. There is money in Soweto. Not everywhere. A lot of the township was destined to poverty by design, but you can’t keep a good Sowetan down. In Orlando West, there is money.
“Think about it, Sis Viv.” There is a lot of money in Soweto. There is hope. There is promise. We might as well get some of it.”
There is a difference in a place being ‘busy’ and it being ‘alive’. Vilakazi Street is ALIVE. It is thriving.
I happened to arrive on Youth Day, a big day in Soweto . The country is celebrating and reflecting upon the Soweto uprisings of 1976. Vilakaze Street itself is famous, as both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela lived there, so the place has a sense of history.
The place is jumping with life. Street traders and formal traders sell Pap and Meat. Random musical parades march down the street. Even the Hare Krishnas, dance and march joyously. The fashionistas were out in force. Queues outside Sakhumzi and the Wine Bar run way up the Street. I was looking forward to eating at Sakhumzi’s for many months, but the queue was too long. I walked till I found a spot at a chesanyama called Kwa Lichaba. Chesa nyamas (braai meat) are popular here and is sometimes combined with a car wash service. I sit down in a comfortable spot with a plastic cup of wine, a beaded rhino and the isigxholo (Zulu hat for females) I just bought. People look at me suspiciously. At first, I think it is because I am the only Japanese there. The ONLY Japanese in Vilakazi street that entire time. Not even a German tourist or two.
Turns out I was sitting in the VIP section without permission. Being a Japanese I didn’t know better. Someone is sent over to ask me to move to another table. You must understand, to be a VIP at Kwa Lichaba requires a minimum amont of gold and fashion labels worn, and plenty of swagger. And your car must be so bling you can see it from outer space.
I was clearly not a VIP, but the mood was lively, the meat was fresh and well prepared and the service was swift. Good service is standard for this part of Soweto.
Orlando West is primed for tourism. Ubers run like clockwork and menus and activities mix authentic African experiences with Western expectations.
24 HOUR SECURITY
I walk back from Kwa Lichaba up Xorile Street. A mere few metres away from Vilakaze street, the swagger and ostentation changes. People simply have fun on their pavements. Fancy VIP sofas become empty buckets turned upside down in the front yard.
“Hi Dear!” one group yell at me from their garden.
“Yebo, Sawubona!” I shout back.
“Hello Sweetie,” yell some guys on the left, who constructed their own VIP area on the lawn. I stop.
“Hi, do you mind if I take a picture of you for my blog?” I ask.
“Are you going to pay us or give us anything?”
“So you are going to benefit from the photo, but we don’t get anything?”
“’Tsek!” he says angrily, waving me away.
” I said in Japanese and Voetsekked right off.
(Technically, Konnichiwa means ‘hello’, not goodbye, but I only know 2 words of Japanese.)
I became aware of a man approaching me with intent from behind. I turned around and prepared to arm myself with the sharp bit of the rhino I just bought.
“Madam, madam!” The man said earnestly. “Please listen to me. There is something very important you must understand. You are white and we are black. We are very different. Some people here don’t want you here, because we are not the same.” His name was Ntate. He says it means ‘father’ in Sotho. While Ntate is talking, he makes hand-wringing gestures with his whole body. “I can see what you are doing. You are making a story. And you are doing it by yourself, I like that, but if people reject you, move away. They are not for you.”
Well, I can tell you what Ntate lacks in teeth and a fresh flowery fragrance, he makes up for in guilt entrepreneurial spirit.
“You must not worry, madam. I will protect you. Do not be afraid. I will walk with you 24 hours.” Ntate’s 24 Hour Security services became Ntate’s 2.4 minute security services the moment I gave him R100 and he saw someone selling a beer out their garage. But I was not afraid. I never felt fear my entire time in Soweto.
I recall at least 3 times where Sowetans (men) came up to me and asked me if I felt safe or if I wanted them to walk with me. I got the sense that they offered, not because they felt concern on my behalf, but because they thought maybe I wanted the reassurance. This won’t happen in Germiston.
BACKPACKERS AND SAFETY
I ask Lungile whether this sensation of ‘safety’ is just a Japanese illusion. How does he explain the lack of barbed wire fences, high walls and electric fences.
“We have a sense of community here. It is in our interest to keep the neighbourhood safe, for ourselves and to protect out income as potential tourist destination.”
No surveillance cameras, just look over the wall and if you see something, say something – in person, not a CPF whatsapp group.
I do some internet research on my ipad, take a nap and take an Uber back to Vilakazi street to check out the night life. The place is pumping. Vibrant. Cheerful konkas with fire warm the clientele in the early winter chill and the restaurants are running a roaring trade. But you have to wear your big girl panties if you want to jol with the Sowetans. They party with a vigour and authenticity I have not even seen in Germiston. I recall vaguely a cartwheel I performed at some stage and the Uber driver taking me back to the BackPackers, but most of the night became a delightful blurr. I slept safe and warm and content in a neat and tidy room.
COFFEE WITH SAKHUMZI
I wake up with a throbbing head and a mighty thirst, yet looking forward to my quad-biking tour. After confirming where I was, I check to see what was missing. I lost my credit card and sunglasses. Probably fell out during the somersault. Must sort it out before I get the SMS’s informing me of my bank account being cleared. On the bright side, I still had my stash of emergency cash in my bra (a non-negotiable when I travel) and I found some old 3-D glasses I got at the movies, so I was in good shape, but I needed coffee.
Unfortunately, I had become accustomed t o luxury travel over the years and didn’t pack my cooler box appropriately for a Back Packers, who offer basic services only. Self-catering is the norm. I checked the woeful cooler box and found only some box wine left, so I drank it. What? I was thirsty! If I knew I was going to be that thirsty, I would have had a lot more to drink the previous night.
Lungile takes us down Vilakazi Street to hunt for some coffee. The only place moving early in the morning is Sakhumzi’s which is cleaning up after an epic night before. Sakhumzi himself if there, overseeing the whole operation. He admits to feeling a bit under the weather himself. The restaurant, famous for its authentic African food is housed in the home Sakhumzi grew up in. Legend goes that friends and family would gather under the tree in the yard and when hunger struck, people moved indoors and meals would be bought and shared amongst each other in the spirit of Ubuntu. That is how his success story started, by sharing food. Now people across the world come to share in his cuisine.
Sakhumzi offers us some coffee and Lungile mentions we are joking about starting a tour operation driving people through Soweto in Katy Peri-Peri, capitalizing on the allure of the Sophiatown era. He raises and eyebrow and does not look too impressed with the business idea, but offers the following insight into the high fashion and fancy cars in the township during that era.
“Back then, black people were not allowed to own property or have bank accounts. So displaying your money in clothes and cars became a symbol of resistance and pride.” He also reveals that he, himself owns a Chev Impala, ’64 model. Talk drifts to classic cars and we compare notes. “Now, the mechanic says there is a leak somewhere.” Says Sakhumzi. “I know what you mean,” I complain. “I have to sometimes hotwire my car by bypassing the ignition and connecting the starter straight to the battery.” You must understand, when classic car owners ‘complain’, they are ‘bragging.”
“My mechanic is driving me mad. It’s a guy in Germiston.”
“I know that guy. I had to bust my car out of there.” I confess. “It just took too long!”
“That guy has a problem finishing something. His work is good, but it just takes forever.” Says Sakhumzi, analyzing the problem.
I feel ashamed of my people at this stage. No, not the Japanese, the Germistonians.
The coffee and the conversation was excellent though. I depart for my quad-bike tour semi-sweet to well done.
JOU MA SE VRRR-PHA! QUAD BIKING THROUGH SOWETO
When you wear those 3-D movie glasses as sunglasses, it already causes a headache. Add a different kind of headache from a hangover and you have double trouble. Luckily for me the two headaches cancelled each other out the moment I put the accelerator on the quad bike.
I booked my quad bike through Soweto Outdoor Adventures (SOA). Excellent experience, from the booking to the actual ride and the activities. They are situated at the Orlando Towers, a Soweto landmark and rung bungee jumping, paintball, bike and quad bike tours.. It was the highlight of my year so far. In fact, I would go so far as to say if there was only one thing you had time for in SA, do this. Maybe if you have some spare time, go see Cape Town. Some people say it is cool. Or the Kruger Park is also okay, but I just loved the Quad-Biking experience. The guys at SOA are very good. They combine the thrill of the quad-biking with short stops where you taste authentic food and drink and they keep the history entertaining and don’t labour anything. I loved it. I found myself more than once simply laughing out loud from joy.
Obviously, being Japanese, it did not go without a complication. Obviously. The crappy 3-D glasses broke when I put the helmet on, so I had to ride with it half mast over my face, but that was a minor inconvenience. You see, you can only book quad bikes in groups of 10 or more, so by being by myself I was tagged onto another group – who rejected me. “She can’t come with us,” they say. The group is a celebrity entourage from the US for someone called Trevor Scott.
“Wiedefok is Trevor Scott as hy by die fokken huis is?” I ask the tour guide.
“Apparently a singer.”
So now I had to go behind them – on the same tour a hundred metres or so behind them, like Kiepie die Kont.
I start taking photos to see who this American poepol is. A hostile security detail approaches me: “No pictures! Please!”
“Fuck off. Please.. Jou ma se vrrr-pharra!” I think and secretly snap a few pics.
SOA dealt with the situation excellently. The organizer apologized.
“You are a VIP in your own right, dahling” she said and assigned me my own tguide and security detail. They were both called Matt. There was a black one and a white one. Matt Black was the leader and guide and Matt White the marshall who helped manage traffic so we could travel safe through the streets.
At one stop, you stop at an authentic shop where they serve you ‘amagwinya’ (fatcakes), freshly cooked. In true township tradition, you put some polony, cheese and chakalaka between two cakes and make a kind of hamburger. The fatcakes are so hot off the oven that it melts the cheese and polony (processed meat) into a beautiful goo-ey centre. Exquisite.
What made it even better was because I travelled by myself I moved around quicker and got to the fatcake place before Vrrr-mampharra, so they had to watch me slowly enjoying my fatcakes while waiting for theirs.
It was at Hector Peterson’s Memorial where it came in particularly handy to be Japanese. I looked at that famous photo of where the young student Hector Peterson was murdered in a protest against the Apartheid government. The even itself is so gut-wrenching, but rip-your-heart-out sad is that after liberation, pupils still sit without textbooks. What can I do. I am Japanese. So I take a photo, Zumpify it and move on.
FINAL GOODBYES: LOST AND FOUND
Something happened to me in Soweto. It invigorated me. It confused me. I could not decide whether I felt completely at home and fitted in or was a complete outsider and should just Voetsek, as was suggested.
It could just be the adrenaline and my body sending lots of healing drugs to cope with the hangover, but I saw a people with a spirit of survival and a sense of future. They simply get on with the hustle of life. Their kindness and patience to the never ending stream of tourists who asks the same questions and do the same things are quite amazing qualities.
At one stage, at the top of Khumalo Road, a French tour group crossed .One old French Oompie stopped in the middle of the street to take a picture, oblivious that he was causing a traffic situation. Matt Black gently tried to get him to move, but Le Toppie just took his time and teetered off after a while. The driver in the car waiting for Le Toppie to move just shook his head. Matt Black just laughed.
When the blur of the Friday night cleared, my soul was full, but my bra was empty, I retraced my steps and concluded my credit card could only be at 1 of 3 places. I called and someone had handed in my credit card at the Wine Bar.
I collected it the next day and had a very elegant and sophisticated lunch at the Wine Bar. Cheers, Vilakaze Street. I even met my big brother, Sipho Simelane there in a chance encounter. Life’s like that.
I want to say thank you to Soweto. I leave filled not only with fatcakes, but also with a sense of vibrancy. I am also most grateful that you have returned to me something that I though I had lost forever – HOPE.
Thank you. Ngiyabonga. ありがとうございました